Lombok part I: Gili Island

Lombok part I: Gili Island

This is the first post of a 3 part series of my Lombok experience. The post is more of a story than a guide. Check out this Lombok guide (which featured me) if you are looking for a good one. 

Prologue


 

It’s a satisfying feeling when you can remember the beginning of something. I remember what it was for my Lombok trip – a poster of the mountaineering club of my university had caught my attention. I looked at the picture of mount Rinjani – the picture that you would find most often if you googled it, the one with the stunning view of its crater lake – and knew I had to go there. Now, that is probably a little melodramatic but I am strangely proud of the fact that I sheltered that flash of inspiration for at least a couple of years and kept that promise to myself while countless ones are made and forgotten everyday.

It was one of the 9 long weekends of the year and me and my friend, Asif, were itching to go somewhere. I don’t exactly remember how we locked in on Lombok, I know we were always hesitant about Indonesia because of supposed visa issues, but it must have included me googling mount Rinjani at some point. Lombok was described simply – the unspoilt sister of Bali – and I was sold. I was always drawn to natural beauties like Bali and was always repulsed by the maddening crowd of popular destinations (like Bali). Lombok was what I was looking for.

For a while it seemed we would go as a duo. That was a first for me – the few trips I had made before this, I went with groups, and rather sizable ones at that. In fact just the previous trip a couple of months prior to Lombok, I went caving and whitewater rafting with 7 other friends. Which probably explained the lack of people enthusiastic to join us – they were short on budget or annual leaves. However, before the tickets and visa were finalized, Majed decided to join us and I began to plan for three.

Planning for trips reminds me of an article I had once read. The article was on happiness (there is a frightening amount of such articles nowadays) and it claimed that planning was the best part of a trip and that we could “trick” ourselves into happiness by planning for trips even if we did not end up going. For me, planning for a trip is not that great. It’s not that I wasn’t excited. It wasn’t as if my heart didn’t skip a beat when I saw the beaches or read about conquering the peak of Rinjani, or learn that we could try surfing for the first time – it was just that I was a little hard pressed for time trying to do a patient and somewhat obsessive research. I was looking away whenever there was a picture taken near Rinjani’s summit, as if they were spoilers, and was constantly reminding myself not to get my expectation too high. But the best part was when the three of us would meet in my room to research and finalize our plans and then, sooner or later, we would sit back and daydream about how great the view would be from Rinjani’s peak, how wonderful it would feel when we manage to stand for the first time on the surfboard and how great we would be at surfing. All in all, it was a good time and we discovered later that our research and pickiness paid off (or at least when we didn’t disregard the advices).

It was the Rinjani trek that had us fidgety. The only thing I had ever done that remotely resembled a trek was a 1-1.5 hour climb of a small hill in Tioman, Malaysia. We didn’t know what to expect. The different itineraries (depending on the length of the trek), routes and general list of items to bring along were quite readily available on various websites, but we were facing the dilemmas of the inexperienced. Almost everywhere hiking boots, windproof jackets and walking sticks were recommended but we were unable to decide whether they were important enough to buy. Of a greater concern was our fitness level. It is deceptively difficult to judge if you are fit enough for something you have so vague an idea about. The attempt to summit would require a ‘good’ level of fitness – that much was abundantly clear, the problem was that ‘good’ is as subjective as it gets. I soon found that to get a better feel of the trek, travel blogs were an excellent option and luckily there were a few fantastic blogs on Rinjani. I enjoyed alexinwanderland and found theyoganomads quite helpful. Although the blogs did not solve the dilemmas I mentioned, they did give us a clearer picture (and some valuable tips) , necessary for our peace of mind. Or maybe they just got us so pumped up that we decided to ignore whatever suited us. One of blogs did mention a girl who attempted the summit and who broke down in tears the following day saying she wished she hadn’t gone, but we decided to believe we were fitter than her.

For those who are in the same position we were in, I will leave you to make your own decisions from my experiences. All I am going to say is this – do not underestimate the difficulties and you will not find yourself unprepared. Give Rinjani, the second highest peak in Indonesia, the respect that is due.

I have been talking too much about Rinjani. Let me come back to the trip itself. Just the day before our flight, my optimism took a hit when I lost my wallet and phone. I was trying on a good pair of trousers for the trek and in the trial room, I decided it was too expensive and left it there – along with my wallet and phone. It took me fifteen minutes and a failed attempt to board a bus to realize what I had done. By the time I ran back to the shop, my belongings were nowhere to be found. Now, I am quite used to me losing things, but this time I panicked because my employment pass was in my wallet and I wasn’t sure if I could leave and re-enter Singapore without it. So my friend and I ran to the nearest police station, while I called my bank to freeze my cards. After almost two hours of painstakingly detailed explanation to a trainee police officer (answering questions like “did you go to the trial room alone?”), I left with a police report and the assurance that immigration would not be a problem. Later that night we had another episode of excitement when I managed to track my phone using my google account and watched my phone travelling along an expressway for about ten minutes. Looking back, it was a fitting start to a happening trip.

 

Gili Island


 

Our flight was in the evening. There was a 8-hour long transit in Jakarta – the inevitable cost of travelling on a budget – and we were due to fly to Lombok in the morning. Jakarta airport turned out to be exactly as described in blogs and posts – Extra checks for third-world-country passport holders, transit hotel inside the airport closed due to renovation and an astounding lack of spoken English proficiency. Maybe I was just unlucky, but I failed to convey our simple requirement for a place to sleep to the woman in the information desk. So we approached a  guy standing outside the building and fortunately he directed us to a nearby transit hotel. We took a taxi (at a high price even after much haggling), only to find that all the rooms were already taken. Desperate for a few hours of atleast-decent sleep, we agreed to pay a premium for three couches in a corner of the hotel – complete with a chest-of-drawers, blanket, a bottle of water and the permission to use the toilet (for mundane necessities only and not for luxuries such as a bath). The start of the trip was turning out to be a challenge to our high morale.

The best thing about our trio was that it never took too much to recharge our morales. The first glimpse of the Gili – three small islands arranged in almost a straight line from the mainland – got us wide awake in no time. Very soon, we had landed and were staring at Rinjani dominating one of the horizons, its peak lost in the clouds. And just like that, our complaints and tiredness vanished.

First Glimpse of the Gili islands from the plane.

Our first destination was Gili island, but our bucket list started even before that. The plan was to rent bikes and to drive to Bangsal Harbour where we could get a ferry/speedboat to Gili. The road to Bangsal Harbour runs along the shore and we had planned the drive as soon as we had seen it on the map, even before we managed to find pictures online. We wanted to rent a bike from near the airport so that we could keep it for the whole duration of our stay and only return it an hour or two before our return flight. But there was nothing to be found near the airport and so we settled for a taxi to Senggigi, one of the central towns in Lombok and our destination after Gili. Although taxis are quite easy (and reasonably cheap) to come by for the longer commutes, bikes are the main form of transport everywhere in Lombok. They are extremely cheap (5 SGD per day), frighteningly easy to get (no one even asks for a license) and very convenient to have. Getting bikes everywhere was probably the best outcome of our research.

Here I should mention our expertise, or lack thereof, in riding bikes. I was the most experienced of the three, and was fairly comfortable with bikes – even the manual ones – but I did not have any semblance of a license in any country. But that was not the problem – I am quite sure that most of tourists I later saw riding bikes did not have any either. The problem was that Majed had never even started a bike. Asif was only slightly better – he had rented bikes during a previous trip to Krabi and before that had secretly taken his father’s bike out for a couple of days. I want to say we were young and reckless, and a few might agree, but it’s really not that dangerous. Light and automatic, the bikes are really glorified bicycles – you just need to get used to them – and I am quite sure a good number of the tourists did just that.

Our taxi alighted us right in front of a bike rental shop in Senggigi. Only now I realize what a major effect this had had on our Rinjani hike – our tour guide’s shop was right next to it – but I will come to that later. We were a little worried that the bike owners would see our inexpertise and decline to rent us bikes, but we quickly found out that they did not care. I will pass on the advices we had read – always check the bikes you rent, both for your safety and for avoiding fraudulent claims of damage. Although we did check the brakes, and I took the bikes for short rides, we realized we were not sure what to check. So, we quickly filled out the papers and made the payments, and we were off.

I am not sure I can do justice when I try to describe the magnificent views throughout the drive. I will try, but in case I fail, here’s the bottom line – do not miss the drive from Senggigi to Bangsal for anything. Rent bikes or rent cars, but if possible, don’t take a taxi. The road snakes along the western shoreline of Lombok, rising until you suddenly come upon a majestic view of a beach or a lagoon sparkling under the sun, and then descending until you are right next to the sand and the waves. And the best part of driving ourselves was that we stopped whenever we were struck by a scenery and enjoyed the view while sipping a cup of tea from the many roadside stalls. There was no hustle and bustle of tourists, no competition to get to that good spot for a photograph. It was serene. And then we would continue our drive, feeling the wind rushing past our face, waiting for a turn that would leave us awestruck again.

Neither the pictures nor my words can do justice to the drive.

All the road-side stopovers meant that it was past noon when we reached Bangsal Harbour where we parked our bikes for 24 hours with fifty cents. There were two different options for going to Gili – the slower and cheaper way with a public ferry and the costlier, faster way with a speedboat. Having neither the time nor any inclination to wait around for hours, we quickly booked a speedboat which left every hour and sat down for the short wait of 20 minutes. There were a lot of tourists around waiting for the afternoon ferry which was hours away, but none of us considered saving 20 bucks to be worth waiting for hours in a dusty waiting room with nothing to do. But I guess not everyone was on a trip as short as ours. Even then, I believe the speed boat ride is more than worth it if you are not solo backpacker, not only because of the time it saves but also for the ride itself. There is no better way to arrive at an island destination than with windswept hair, high spirits and a hoarse voice from the yelling you did since you had the boat to yourselves.

“Gili islands” is used to refer to three very distinct islands off Lombok’s coast – Gili Air, Gili Meno and Gili Trawangan. Gili Meno is the most secluded one with only a few hotels to stay in; Gili Trawangan is most frequented by tourists and is also as the ‘party island’ and Gili Meno is somewhere in between. We had chosen Gili Trawangan as our destination, not because we were party people, but because it had seemed the safest option. But Gili Trawangan has two sides – a busy east side where you alight and a relatively secluded west side, which offers you an undisturbed view of the sunset. Unsurprisingly, our hotel was on the west side of the island.

In fact, it was, by far, the most expensive hotel in our trip, a luxury we had decided to allow ourselves before we went off to the strenuous trek.

We were quite late, at least compared to our plans, when we set foot on Gili Trawangan. We were tired, hungry and in need of freshening up. Once we talked with some guys in one of the many shops near the jetty that arranged snorkelling trips, and learned that we had to cut our snorkelling trip short if we wanted to go that very day, we decided to put off snorkelling for early next day. We still had to go to our hotel on the other side of the island and the choices for transportation was bicycles or horse drawn carts serving as taxis. We rented bicycles for a full day and started for our hotel which was a 20 minute ride. By then, our energy levels were fading. Now that I think about the trip, it strikes me how different our plans will be for the same trip 10 years in the future. We will probably arrive with a big luggage, check in a hotel in Mataram and get a day’s rest before getting the reception arrange a taxi towards Gili. We would probably look back at this trip and say we were young and restless. But then again, maybe that’s how I know I am doing it right – I have no intentions of growing old before it’s necessary.

In contrast to our young-and-restless kind of commute, our hotel was old-and-successful type of luxurious. With only a narrow road between its entrance and the beach, you could see the ocean from within its perimeter, and probably enjoy the sunset sitting beside the pool. But right then, the only thing that interested us was food. We checked in, dumped our bags in our rooms and went out to find a place to eat. Being on the quieter side of the island, we were not expecting a lot of options, but we found that we just had to cross the road and there was a restaurant right on the beach. To make things even better, there were sofas and bean bags along the beach where you can just lie back, relax and order food. And we did just that.

Bean bags should be compulsory on every beach in the world.

And so we passed a lazy afternoon by the sea. The weather was not what is considered ideal – bright and sunny. The sky was cloudy and the wind was strong – the kind of weather that either  brings out the philosopher in you, questioning what you are doing with your life, or the child in you, wanting to run on the sand spreading your arms. It was the kind of weather that made you peaceful and restless at the same time. To me it was perfect, or at least until it started to rain. Even then we did not want to come back to shelter – we were just trying out the swings placed knee-deep in the water – but it soon got too cold. After watching the rain for a while, we went back to our hotel to freshen up before coming back with coffee in hand to watch the sunset. Unfortunately, the sun was well hidden by the clouds and we had to be content with sipping coffee beside the pool.

Soon it was dark, and it was time for dinner. So, we took out our bicycles, and thanking the freedom of mobility it gave us, started for the happening side of the island to get food and book a snorkelling trip for the day after. I am not sure what we were expecting in terms of streetlight on an island where motorized vehicles are not allowed, but we were quite surprised when we found the road to be completely dark. The moon, like the sun during the day, was completely hidden by the clouds, and there were no artificial lights around – not even on our bicycles. Occasionally, a horse drawn cart or two would pass us by, its lantern and hoof beats warning us to give way, but that was the about the only light and human presence we got. Once they were gone, the road would go back being just a fade outline on a black canvas. I remember there was a large puddle at one point and we had no idea until we felt and heard our tires splashing through it. The experience was surreal. It’s not everyday that you can cycle with your friends, in a dark and deserted road only 10-20 feet from the sea, with cool air in your face and the sound of breaking waves in your ears.

And that’s something that happens on a trip if you are with  a few like minded people – weird and wonderful things pop up where you least expect them. You can neither plan nor foresee them, and that makes them all the more special.

As we got close to the east side of the island, it was like we were back to civilization. We booked a snorkelling trip at one of the road-side shops, and following their suggestion for a dining place, proceeded to have dinner. To be honest, the east side is somewhat crowded (Gili Trawangan is called the party island for a reason), but personally I was quite enjoying it. Maybe I was in such a good mood that everything felt perfect, or maybe the vibrant crowd was just the change we needed after a quiet afternoon.

After dinner, we found ourselves in a shisha bar. It was right next to the sea and had a cozy layout – a few low tables and cushions on the floor to lounge against. It was almost full, but as we entered, a group got up and left us the best sit in the place – right next to the water. There was not even a railing between us and the sea. We had embraced ourselves for ridiculous prices, but as it turned out the price was quite reasonable. We ordered a shisha and spent more than an hour sitting there, enjoying the sea breeze, chatting and laughing. When we were finally on our way back to the hotel, we could not have thought of any ways to make our first day any better.


 

When morning came, we left out beds with some difficulty. We could have slept till noon but we were already getting late for our snorkelling trip. Originally our plans had been to leave for Senggigi in the morning (with snorkelling done the day before), but there was no way we were leaving Gilli without a few hours in the water. So, we checked out of the hotel, and slinging our bags over our shoulder, cycled our way to the jetty where a boat was awaiting us. After depositing our bags in the shop and grabbing some biscuits and juices for breakfast, we headed for the boat.

Once again we were pleasantly surprised. Firstly, we discovered that the unimpressive little shop where we booked our snorkelling trip had prescription snorkel masks. To Asif, this was godsend – he had never been able to fully enjoy snorkelling due to his nearsightedness. Next we found that we had the boat to ourselves. I had been worried that travelling as a small group will not allow us such luxuries (as a group of ten we always booked the whole boat) and I am not sure if it was just lucky or a reward of choosing such a non-commercialized tourist destination, but we were elated as we met our guide and hopped on our boat. To our amazement, the boat had a section in the middle made of glass, allowing you to see corals and fish below. I realized that the words ‘glassbottom’ I had seen painted across some of the boats were meant very literally.

The next few hours only got better from there. There is no point trying to describe a three hours long snorkelling experience, so I will just recount our unique experiences. Do not let this fool you into thinking that the underwater life in Gili is not worth mentioning.

It’s fun snorkelling with two people who were seeing the beauty of the underwater world for the first time. Majed was snorkelling for the first time, but his enthusiasm was surpassed by Asif repeatedly yelling, “So this is what it’s like to see clearly!”

Their excitement was infectious and I was envying them their first (proper) snorkelling experience. But I wasn’t without things to try out either. We had rented a GoPro before the trip and we were yearning to take some cool pictures. Our guide was game too – he moved our boat  into deeper water so we could take shots of headfirst dives, and shots of us peeking from below the boat’s transparent section.

The proper way to snorkel.

But the trick I enjoyed the most was to snorkel without life jackets. It wasn’t our idea, we saw some guys doing it and every now and then they would just dip into the water to have a closer look at something interesting. Majed and I immediately took off our jackets to try, and loved the idea. Soon we were taking pictures of the miniature free dives. It was like a teaser for freediving, but there was more to come. As if to see proper freediving in action, Majed accidentally dropped his mask while getting on the boat. When we told our guide, he just nodded and demanded his fins. Then he did half a somersault and swam straight down, leaving us in awe and reaching for our camera. He picked up the mask and turned his head upwards to give the camera a thumbs up. When he surfaced (the depth there was at least five metres), he didn’t even look out of breath. We were duly impressed.

So, on the last site, we tried some more freediving. This time our guide joined us – he picked up some sand from the seabed, came up halfway, beckoned for us to join him and released the sand slowly so that the fish would think it was food and flock to him. Asif was on camera duty as Majed and I tried to join our guide surrounded by fish. There would been some enviable photos or videos here had our GoPro’s battery not died. Asif was completely oblivious to this, however, and we continued diving and posing until we could hardly swim from tiredness.

The episode of Gilli ended with us lounging on a speedboat back to mainland, staring at Rinjani on the horizon in front of us, sad we had to leave so quickly.

“We are climbing that tomorrow”, Asif said in awe.

And for the rest of the boat ride our sorrow was engulfed by anticipation.

 


7 thoughts on “Lombok part I: Gili Island

  1. Gili island is high on my bucket list. I want to visit here along with my upcoming tour to Bali. Thanks to your guide, I will refer back when finalizing my trip

  2. I would love to visit Indonesia; Bali sounds too busy for me too so Lombok just moved up the list! Snorkeling freely is soooo much better than with a life jacket, I definitely agree!

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